Tsai to apologise for injustices to Taiwan’s aboriginals but threats to way of life abound
For Tama Talum of Taiwan’s aboriginal Bunun mountain people, hunting is a way of life, integral to his tribal customs – but after his arrest for illegally killing a deer and goat on land near his village, he fears those traditions will die out.
It is just one of many cases reflecting the wrangle between Taiwan’s authorities and its indigenous people, with critics arguing laws discriminate against aboriginal culture.
Tsai Ing-wen – the first Taiwanese leader with aboriginal blood – will attempt to ease those tensions when she delivers the first apology to the island’s indigenous people on Monday for injustices over the centuries.
“An apology isn’t going to solve all the problems, but symbolically it shows Tsai is willing to face this issue,” said Kolas Yotaka, a legislator of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who is from the largest Amis tribe. She added: “It gives us hope.”
However, for Talum, the damage is done. The 57-year-old is a free man while he awaits the result of an appeal at the Supreme Court after an uproar in the aboriginal community over his 3½ sentence for possessing an illegal weapon and hunting protected species.
Aboriginal hunters are legally only allowed to use home-made guns – which are said to be dangerous and have led to injuries – and to hunt on festival days, restrictions to which many tribespeople object.
Talum’s arrest has stopped younger tribe members wanting to hunt, he said. “Some of them are scared after seeing me being dragged away. They don’t want to learn. I was an optimistic man but it’s hard to be upbeat,” he said.
Their sense of injustice revolves around the loss of ancestral land rights, which came under threat when immigrants from the mainland arrived 400 years ago. Much of that land is now national park, leading to clashes over hunting and foraging in areas where permits are needed.
“There are so many restrictions, telling us what we can’t do,” Talum said. “We aren’t stealing or robbing anyone, and it’s not that we are hunting everyday.”
Talum moved to the city in search of work, but eventually returned to take care of his mother.
Aboriginal unemployment is higher than the rest of the workforce and their wage is about 40 per cent less than the national average, according to the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples.
A lack of autonomy to manage and live off their land also exacerbates social issues such as alcohol abuse, according to Scott Simon, a professor at the University of Ottawa, who researches Taiwan indigenous rights.
“The alcohol problem is a major public health issue that is not being adequately addressed. These issues are related,” he said.
Despite the challenges, some young aboriginals are trying to reconnect with their roots.
“What we want is simple: give us back what was originally ours,” said Kelun Katadrepan, who works for an indigenous television station.
The 30-year-old from the Puyuma tribe has started a campaign group gathering young professionals to advocate aboriginal involvement in politics.
In addition to restoring dispossessed land, Katadrepan wants an overhaul of the education system to prevent further loss of tribal languages five are seen as “severely endangered” by Unesco.
His parents did not want to teach him their native language while growing up, believing he needed to master Putonghua to secure a better future.
“We aren’t Chinese, but we are forced to learn Chinese since we are little. That is not our culture,” Katadrepan said.
But there have been gradual efforts to change that. While teaching is usually in Chinese, some schools offer options to take native language classes.
There are also indigenous community colleges where traditional customs and skills are taught.
With the DPP now in power, legislator Yotaka hopes government regulations will now be brought in line with the aboriginal basic law, adopted in 2005 to protect indigenous rights.
That would correct current contradictions, including the fact that hunting is illegal apart from during major tribal festivals – even though the basic law protects indigenous rights to kill wild animals for self-consumption.
Talum says he has not risked hunting since his conviction, except for a sanctioned foray during a spring festival where young Bunun men demonstrate their hunting skills and pray for a good millet harvest.
He still clings on to hope that his son, who was raised in the city and is now in his thirties, will eventually learn the old ways.
“After a while, when the time comes, he will think of going to the mountains with his father,” he says.